Thursday, September 23, 2021

A Deep Dive Into Family History: How Historical Michigan Inspired a Middle Grade Novel By Betsy Bird

My family has long, strong Michigan roots. Going back well more than a century, hale from South and Southwest Michigan. So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that Caldecott Award winner David Small lived in a house connected to my Grandmother’s no-good uncle. It’s not often that family stories and contemporary interests (like, say, children’s books) intersect, but when they do, it behooves you to pay attention.

For years my mother told the story of how this ne’er do well uncle would skip out on his farm chores so he could high tail it to nearby Mendon, Michigan where an elderly ex-circus performer lived. Going by the name Madame Marantette, she was apparently a great big deal in the early 20th century. You can imagine my astonishment when I discovered that not only was she real and not some figment of family legend, but also that David Small, an illustrator I’d known since my youth, lived in her very house!

Some books come to you in pieces. You have the elements in your head but they don’t coalesce all at once. It took years before I had the wherewithal to start to realize I had a book on my hands. After all, family history + local illustrator + notorious historical figure = literary gold. Long story short, I told David about my idea and he ended up being the illustrator of LONG ROAD TO THE CIRCUS! It’s the story of Suzy Bowles, a small town country kid who longs for more. When she discovers her uncle has been skipping out on his farm chores to help the mysterious Madame Marantette, Suzy wants in. She doesn’t know how, but she’s determined to find out whether or not the Madame is her ticket out of his one horse town. 
I had my story and I had my illustrator. Now came the difficult part: Actually writing the book. Amusingly, I’d gone into the project thinking that I had a picture book on my hands. David quickly disabused me of this notion. As he told me, this was clearly a middle grade novel. And never mind that I’d never written one before, he had faith in me that I could write one now. With more than a little trepidation, I set out to live up to his expectations. And, in doing so, I discovered I had a secret weapon in my pocket. That weapon? Family history. To be more specific, a family history with deep ties to Michigan, which I’d alluded to before. It turns out that if you dig deep into your family’s history and stories there’s a plethora of material to be found!
Of course, the downside of family history is that if you still have family hanging around, they may not agree with your interpretation of said history. My book caused a couple debates over whether the no-good uncle deserved the redemption he receives in the book and whether using one name or another for characters was a good idea. Still and all, the old adage “write what you know” turns out to have a lot of truth behind it. Don’t know how to write a novel that’s unexpectedly landed in your lap? Don’t just write what you know. Write what your family knows. Because, believe me, they’ll be more than happy to provide you with material if you just open up and give them a chance.

Betsy Bird is the Collection Development Manager of Evanston Public Library, and the former Youth Materials Specialist of New York Public Library. She blogs frequently at the School Library Journal site A Fuse #8 Production, and reviews for Kirkus and the New York Times on occasion. Betsy is the author of the picture books GIANT DANCE PARTY and THE GREAT SANTA STAKEOUT, she a co-author on the very adult WILD THINGS: ACTS OF MISCHIEF IN CHILDREN'S LITERATURE, editor of the middle grade anthology of funny female writers FUNNY GIRL, and author of her upcoming debut middle grade novel LONG ROAD TO THE CIRCUS, illustrated by Caldecott Award winning illustrator David Small. Betsy hosts two podcasts, Story Seeds, which pairs kids and authors together to write stories, and the very funny Fuse 8 n' Kate where she and her sister debate the relative merits of classic picture books. 

Coming up on The Mitten Blog:

Faith-based writing and publishing, website tips, Book Birthdays, a Writer Spotlight, Equity & Inclusion Corner, and more! Do you have an idea for a blog post? Do you have writing, illustrating, or publishing tips to share? Have you read a book on craft recently? Would you like to interview an agent, editor, or bookstore owner? We'd love to hear from you! Find our submission guidelines here:

Calling all illustrators! 

Learn more and find a location near you:

Scholarship Opportunity! 

Please spread the word! Learn more and apply here: 

Friday, September 10, 2021

Hugs and Hurrahs

Kids (and teachers) in Michigan are back at school and we’re back with another Hugs and Hurrahs post to celebrate the good news of some of our members.


Jay Whistler’s debut MG, THE GHOSTLY TALES OF SAN ANTONIO (Arcadia), released on August 2, 2021. For autographed copies, people can contact Jay by e-mail.

Congratulations, Jay!


Kinyel Friday’s SWIM LIKE THE FISHES ACTIVITY BOOK was published in August 2021. This book accompanies SWIM LIKE THE FISHES, which was published in June 2021.

How fun, Kinyel!


Ian Tadashi Moore finished up almost a year of production recording, editing, composing, and mastering an immersive audiobook experience as a companion to his latest book, WHERE ALL THE LITTLE THINGS LIVE.

Awesome, Ian!

Paulette Sharkey’s debut picture book, A DOLL FOR GRANDMA (Beaming Books, 2020) won an Honorable Mention Award in the Family Matters category of the 2021 Story Monsters Purple Dragonfly Book Contest. It was also named a 2021 Best Children’s Book for ages 5-9 by Bank Street College of Education.

That’s great news Paulette!

Sonya Bernard-Hollins’ work as the founder of the Merze Tate Explorers
has been featured in THE MITTEN in the past. She wanted to share how the networking opportunities she has found via SCBWI have helped her and the youth that she serves: She attended an online session with illustrators of SCBWI (Michigan) during our state conference and was so impressed with Brittany "Bea" Jackson that she immediately reached out to her. Brittany’s work as the illustrator of PARKER LOOKS UP by Parker and Jessica Curry (Aladdin) and the story of her journey was something Sonya wanted to share with the Explorers. Brittany accepted the call and met with the girls during their summer day camp on August 18th.  Not only did the Explorers meet a bestselling illustrator, but they met an amazing new role model who shared her career.

What a great connection to make and a wonderful opportunity for the Explorers!


A big hug and hurrah for all of you! Please send your good news for the next Hugs and Hurrahs post to


Monday, September 6, 2021

Book Birthday Blog with Jean Alicia Elster


 Welcome to SCBWI-MI's Book Birthday Blog!

Where we celebrate new books from Michigan's authors and illustrators.

Congratulations to Jean Alicia Elster on the release of How It Happens


How It Happens continues the plot of your two novels Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car. What is something you hope your readers will take away from How It Happens?

I want readers to understand the interconnectivity between generations. Our lives do not happen in a vacuum. The actions of our ancestors and the times in which they lived affect subsequent generations in ways that many of us never consider. Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car provide the framework upon which How It Happens is built. In those first two books, I mention the fact that May Ford is light-skinned and could have easily passed for white. So I take readers back a generation to Clarksville, Tennessee in the post-Reconstruction era in order to examine the roots of that lineage. I explore the effect of those roots in the lives of three successive generations of African American women beginning in the South in 1890 and ending in the North, in post-World War II industrialized Detroit.

What was the most difficult part of writing this book?

The most difficult part of writing this book was extracting the core of the narrative without getting bogged down in extraneous facts and details. My editor at Wayne State University Press has a mantra: simplify the narrative. As a writer, I have worked to internalize that phrase, but it has not been easy. Before writing How It Happens I did genealogical research in Clarksville, Tennessee. I even visited that town’s white and black cemeteries. I compiled oral histories via numerous interviews with relatives through the years, particularly at family reunions. I scoured the Burton Historical Archives in the Detroit Public Library. I recalled the snippets of her history that my maternal grandmother passed on to me over the years. All of this information was whirring around in my head as I constructed the outline and framework of this novel. The book went through three re-writes. It was difficult work, but it was a labor of love and well worth the effort.

You mention in your Kresge Artist Fellow video writing is a lonely craft. Can you tell us what motivates you to keep writing?

I feel strongly that my books should have a positive, life affirming impact on my readers. Therefore, I am more than willing to isolate myself in the writing process in order to create narratives and plots that are going to have that affect.

What are your marketing plans for the book?

As our society is still in pandemic mode, I anticipate that most marketing opportunities will be virtual, for the near future at least. But my marketing plans include events with the usual suspects: schools, libraries, bookstores, book fairs.  Earlier this year, I ventured into the realm of Pinterest as a book marketing tool (@jelsterwrites). I have also started an Instagram account and entered the world of #bookstagram. My Instagram handle is @jeanaliciaelster.

The Wayne State University Press marketing team is fabulous and they have assembled a robust marketing plan for How It Happens on their end.

What’s next for you? Any events coming up, or new books in the works?

I’m always plotting my next book even while I’m editing and revising the current one. So I have a couple of future projects churning in my mind. In fact, one is already nailed down in a book proposal.

But I’m excited about my virtual book launch event for How It Happens on September 16 at 7p EST.  My reading will be accompanied by acclaimed jazz bassist Marion Hayden, followed by a conversation moderated by author/activist Desiree Cooper. I invite folks to enjoy the celebration and register at this link

On September 28 at 6p EST, I also have a virtual event scheduled with Source Booksellers, a dynamic indie bookstore located in the heart of Detroit’s Midtown area. In addition to a reading from How It Happens, there will be a conversation on how this latest book connects with Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car,  followed by a time of Q and A with the audience. Register for this event here

Of course, please check the calendar page on my website for future events!

Copies of How It Happens can be purchased at your local indie bookstore or ordered  through Wayne State University Press at

A little bit about the book . . .

How It Happens is a story of race relations, miscegenation, sexual assault and class
divisions. A continuation of the plots begun in Jean Alicia Elster’s previous
novels Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car, How It Happens is written for young
adult readers, beginning in the turbulent post-Reconstruction period and ending in
the post-World II industrialized North. An intergenerational story of the lives of
three African-American women, Elster intertwines the fictionalized adaptations of
the defining periods and challenges in her family’s history as these three women
struggle to stake their claim to the American dream.

A little bit about the author . . .

A 2017 Kresge Artist Fellow and a former attorney, Jean Alicia Elster is a
professional writer of fiction for children and young adults. She is the great-
granddaughter of Addie Jackson, whose family story is the basis of her young adult
novel How It Happens, published by Wayne State University Press and released in
September 2021. Elster is the author of Who’s Jim Hines? and The Colored Car, which
were also based on her family history and published by Wayne State University
Press in 2008 and 2013, respectively; both were selected as Michigan Notable
Books. Other awards include the Midwest Book Award in Children’s Fiction,
Paterson Prize Honor Book - Books for Young People, and the Governors’ Emerging
Artist Award – Art Serve Michigan. She is also the author of the “Joe Joe in the City”
series, published by Judson Press: Just Call Me Joe Joe, I Have a Dream, Too!, I’ll Fly
My Own Plane and I’ll Do the Right Thing.

In recognition of outstanding work, Elster was honored with a 2017 Kresge
Artist Fellowship in Literary Arts, awarded by Kresge Arts in Detroit, a program of
The Kresge Foundation. She has been awarded three residencies at the
internationally acclaimed Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, Illinois. In addition,
Elster’s essays have appeared in national publications including Ms., World Vision,
Black Child, and Christian Science Sentinel magazines.


Friday, September 3, 2021

A Sneak Peek into the Terrifyingly Terrific Toolkit: Scary Secrets for Writing Thrilling Kidlit in any Genre by Shanna Heath

Terror struck me the first time I read Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney.

I was terrified in a good way because I love horror—especially when I find it in unexpected places.

I was cozy in bed with my three-year-old reading Llama aloud and I turned to the middle spread, the climax of llama drama, and existential dread said “boo” to my soul. Llama’s expressive face is hidden, leaving only his teacup saucer eyes, unblinking, pupils small against the big emptiness of the recto.  The quilt is limp and offers no comfort. Inky blue darkness swallowed the bed’s headboard. Llama quivers in an abyss of shadow slashed with black and yellow. 

“What if Mama Llama’s GONE?”

Llama’s dark night of the soul in Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney

Like this petrified llama, children are haunted by primal fears. They are as early humanoids were: gazing up at the stars and seeing monsters or hearing the anger of gods in summer thunderstorms. The world is huge, and children are small. Adults have power, and children do not. This can be terrifying.

"Children surviving childhood is my obsessive theme and my life's concern," said Maurice Sendak, author of the wonderfully frightening Where the Wild Things Are. “To master these forces,” said Sendak, “children turn to fantasy: that imagined world where disturbing emotional situations are solved to their satisfaction." Mama Llama does come back. Sendak’s Max returns home from the kingdom of Wild Things. And in the process, children have experienced a terrifyingly terrific climax that speaks to the vulnerabilities of being a child.

This is the essence of why I write horror for children. I create monsters and show kids how to defeat them. 

Whether or not you’re interested in writing traditional horror, you can still utilize the tricks of the genre to create terrifyingly terrific conflicts and climaxes, just as Dewdney and Sendak have done. 

In my free community-wide webinar, The Terrifyingly Terrific Toolkit: Scary Secrets for Writing and Illustrating Thrilling Kidlit in any Genre, I’ll show you how. Mark your calendar for September 26, 2021 from 3:00-4:30PM EST. Access more information and the SCBWI-MI webinar link here.

While you wait, here’s a sneak peek.

Terrifyingly Terrific Toolkit Item #1: Horror Isn’t About Monsters

The experience of horror isn’t made by the monsters. This fact may surprise you. Exploitative slasher films are what many people associate with the genre, but masterful horror doesn’t focus on the monster.
It’s the internal experience of a character that marks expert writing craft in the genre.

Horror isn’t about the monster. In 1963’s classic film “The Haunting,” based on Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the malevolent spirits are never shown on screen, yet the film is terrifying.

No matter your genre, you can use this technique to strengthen your writing.

My favorite non-horror example is from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. In this scene, cholera is killing young Mary Lennox’s family in horrific ways, and she is soon to be orphaned. There was an option to elevate the monster in this scene (cholera) to create the terrifying impact. A human body succumbing to cholera is grotesque.

But, this isn’t about the monster. It’s about Mary and her internal experience of the horror. Here’s how Burnett masterfully portrayed the horror of this scene through Mary’s internal experience:

“During the confusion and bewilderment of the second day Mary hid herself in the nursery and was forgotten by everyone. Nobody thought of her, nobody wanted her, and strange things happened of which she knew nothing. Mary alternately cried and slept through the hours. She only knew that people were ill and that she heard mysterious and frightening sounds. Once she crept into the dining-room and found it empty, though a partly finished meal was on the table and chairs and plates looked as if they had been hastily pushed back when the diners rose suddenly for some reason. The child ate some fruit and biscuits, and being thirsty she drank a glass of wine which stood nearly filled. It was sweet, and she did not know how strong it was. Very soon it made her intensely drowsy, and she went back to her nursery and shut herself in again, frightened by cries she heard in the huts and by the hurrying sound of feet. The wine made her so sleepy that she could scarcely keep her eyes open and she lay down on her bed and knew nothing more for a long time.” (Source:

Dixie Egerickx plays Mary Lennox in the 2020 film adaptation “The Secret Garden.” In the novel, Burnett focused on her character’s internal reactions to a horrific situation, not graphic depictions of the “monster” cholera.

Find the Monsters in Your Own Writing

Look at a moment of tension in your own writing. What is the “monster” your child protagonist is facing? Are you centralizing the monster, instead of the internal experience of your character within the scene? 

Rewrite the scene, keeping close to the protagonist but allowing yourself the freedom of description that comes with a third person limited point-of-view. Choose moments of tension and description relevant to the protagonist’s experience of fear/terror/horror/anxiety and focus not on what’s happening outside, but the character’s interior experience. 

Want more? Add Doll Bones by Holly Black and Hide and Seeker by Daka Hermon to your reading list. These books include glimpses of the monsters, but the true tension is built within the minds and hearts of the characters.

More items from the Terrifyingly Terrific Toolkit will be revealed in my free webinar on September 26th from 3:00 to 4:30 PM EST. Don’t forget to add the date to your calendar and bring a writer friend! 

I hope to meet you at the free live webinar and see you on my Instagram @mother_marrow

Remember, childhood can be terrifying. Share horror with the children in your life. A reading list of my favorite spooky reads for all ages (including board books!) is available on my website:

Shanna Heath is an author and monster slayer who writes horror for all ages. Childhood can be terrifying. Shanna makes monsters, then shows kids and teens how to defeat them. Her favorite young horror read is Coraline by Neil Gaiman. She lives in Michigan with her patient wife and two spooky kids and is a proud member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) and the Horror Writer’s Association (HWA). Shanna is represented by Paige Terlip at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency. 

Connect with Shanna:

Coming up on The Mitten Blog:

Faith-based writing and publishing, plunging into Michigan history, website tips, a Writer Spotlight, Book Birthdays, and a post from our Equity and Inclusion Corner. But first, it's time for another round of Hugs and Hurrahs. We want to trumpet your good news! Please send your writing/illustrating/publishing news to Sarah LoCascio by Sept. 7th to be included.